Spring flowers and Colette, in Paris

Floral shop window

“As noisy as Paris was in those days, it always had its unexpected moments of stillness. At Cours-la-Reine, between one and one-thirty in the afternoon, when the last trucks had reached their canteens, those who loved flowers and silence could savor a strange respite, a solitude in which the flowers seemed to recover from human curiosity.”

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We’ve been in Paris, where our son has been studying and working in industrial design. I had so much fun walking around this enchanting city which, among other treasures, has secret gardens galore, flower vendors and flower markets, and floral shops offering spring flowers, herbs, and foliage, all beautifully arranged and presented.

Flowers and Fruit book coverA few years ago I was browsing in a local used book shop when I discovered a volume of essays by Colette, Flowers and Fruit, first printed in the US in 1986.

Some of the essays were inspired by a Swiss publisher, who for a time sent Colette a bouquet of flowers once or twice a week so she could write sketches of those that inspired her.

Colette wrote one of the longer essays in this collection, “Flora and Pomona,” during the Nazi occupation. According to the collection’s editor, Colette conceived of the writing project to “keep the coal bin at 9, rue de Beaujolais well filled and pay the black-market prices for rabbit and cheese and chicken and other comestibles otherwise unavailable, even to much-loved novelists living in the Palais-Royal.”

At the time of its publication, some critics said factual errors, weak editing, and a less than adequate translation detracted from Flowers and Fruit. I find Colette’s writing challenging, so this isn’t the kind of book I’d read straight through. It’s a little treasure for floral enthusiasts that’s fun to browse when I want Colette’s unusual take on flowers.

We were lucky to be in Paris on May Day. This holiday’s signature flower is lily of the valley, one of my favorites. They were everywhere.

Here are some of my Paris floral photos paired with Colette’s thoughts on flowers and gardens:

Peonies

“Garnet red, bright pink, sentimental pink, and three or four other carmine reds, they are the colors of good health and will delight me throughout the coming week.” (These peonies have not yet opened, which is when you should buy them.)

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley is the May Day flower in Paris. “In spring, nearly an entire nation demands lily of the valley like bread.”

Pots of lily of the valley

“More than a flirtation, better than a superstition, almost a religion, the lily of the valley is celebrated on the first of May. Its cult stirs the Paris population to fever pitch…”

Chocolate & lily of the valley

You’ll find lily of the valley everywhere on May Day, even at the chocolatier. I saw these lovely desserts at Sylvain Mussy on Rue Bourg Tibourg.

 

Lily of the valley bouquet

My May Day bouquet. Lily of the valley, gloriosa lily (also known as fire lily or flame lily), and angel hair fern. “The true lily’s favorite soil is the kitchen garden’s, with tarragon, sorrel edgings, and purple garlic for neighbors.”

Flowers

Campanula and Persian violets. “…the sleeve of blue-violet campanula that grows immoderately, framing the windows in a single rush and decking them with flowers all season long.”

Pink and white roses

“Below my window, among the puddles of water, the bathing pigeons….we have old-fashioned, floriferous rosebushes that have survived both war and frost. Never have they failed to flower, and to flower again, and yet again before November.”

Stone figures on garden wall

There are many secret gardens hidden on the side streets of Paris, where the public is welcome.

Garden flowers

This one is Square Georges-Caïn on Rue Payenne. “Creating a garden takes us back to childhood imaginings.”

Paris street with plants, flowers

Some streets, like Rue du Trésor, are gardens, too.

Slow flowers

 “There were Lupines, Sweet Peas, Phlox, Bluebells, Day and Tiger Lilies, Monkshood, Peonies, Columbine, Daffodils, single and double, a Bleeding-heart bush in the front yard, and vines at each corner, which at times nearly covered the house. And always there was Golden-glow by the kitchen door.”   An Old-Time Gardener

Lilies

Grace’s Garden lilies

 

In The Language of Flowers, the main character, Victoria Jones, is a floral designer with a knack for choosing just the right foliage and blossoms for her customers, based on Victorian-inspired flower dictionaries that she’s studied. Having grown up in an Ohio floral shop, I was intrigued by the contemporary, upscale San Francisco flower scene depicted in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s story.

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, our shop carried the standard blooms – roses, carnations, gladiolas and the like – which were shipped from California and South America – and laden with pesticides, though at the time we didn’t give that much thought. Nowadays, floral designers are artisans who use seasonal, locally grown, pesticide-free cultivated and wild flowers, in artful, natural-looking bouquets and arrangements.

Slow Flowers book coverWriter and horticulture expert Debra Prinzing coined the term slow flowers, which has caught on in the floral industry. I’ve been enjoying two of her books, The 50 Mile Bouquet, and Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm.  They were a timely discovery for me, as this summer we sold the building where my parents had their floral shop for nearly fifty years.

In both books, Debra highlights American flower farmers who are passionate about sustainable methods and land stewardship. Slow Flowers is a colorful, lush, small-sized, book with flower arrangements for every week of the year. As in a cookbook, Debra lists the “ingredients” (4 stems hydrangea, 9 stems pink snowberry, 5 stems Dahlia ‘Nijinsky,’ 15 stems amaranth), provides instructions, and suggests vintage and unusual vases and containers.

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria Jones falls in love with Grant, a flower farmer. She first meets him at a flower market, where he is selling varieties of lilies: tiger, stargazer, imperial, and pure white Casablancas. Here is what Victoria has to say about Grant:

“His face had the dusty, lined look of a manual laborer. I imagined he planted, tended, and harvested his flowers himself. His body was lean and muscular as a result, and he neither flinched nor smiled as I examined him…

He withdrew a single orange tiger lily from a bucket.

‘Take one,’ he said, handing it to me.”

Lily

The language of flowers

“I wanted to spend my life choosing flowers for perfect strangers.”     The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Daylily garden

Grace Gardens, Penn Yan, NY

 

Flowers were part of my earliest days and inseparable from family life. My parents opened a flower shop in July, 1952. This month, fifty-eight years later, we sold the building that housed our shop, though the floral business closed some years ago.

To commemorate the flowers of my past and mark how flowers remain part of my life, I’m highlighting a handful of books and authors, and a Finger Lakes “secret” garden. First, a book. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m single but I don’t want to be, the woman said.

She watched me work, arranging the white lilac around the roses until the red was no longer visible. I wound sprigs of rosemary–which I had learned at the library could mean commitment as well as remembrance–around the stem like a ribbon. The rosemary was young and supple, and did not break when I tied it in a knot. I added a white ribbon for support and wrapped the whole thing in brown paper.

First emotions of love, true love, and commitment, I said, handing her the flowers.

The Language of Flowers book coverIn a review of the novel The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Paula McLain (author of The Paris Wife and herself a foster child) writes: “I feel it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s central character, Victoria Jones, is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday.”

The character of Victoria Jones and her fate drew me to The Language of Flowers, as did the lush California landscape of flowers against which this story is set. 

Victoria has lived in more than 30 foster homes, and when she is emancipated at 18, she isn’t ready. It’s difficult to imagine any child emerging intact from our foster care system. I don’t know which was more heartbreaking, to see foster care let down Victoria time after time, or to see the ramifications of this in Victoria’s adult life.

Victoria’s talent with flowers, which may ultimately be her salvation, is another dimension of the novel that intrigued me. Her one kind and loving foster parent, Elizabeth, passed on to Victoria her floral “genius.” Victoria can not only artfully arrange flowers, she has a knack for giving people the particular flowers they need.

I loved this book and plan to read it again.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh cofounded the Camellia Network to support youth transitioning from foster care to independence. The flower camellia means my destiny is in your hands.

A Victorian Flower Dictionary coverThere is a companion volume to this novel, A Victorian Flower Dictionary, compiled by Mandy Kirkby. Neither of these books is to be confused with the classic Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers, first published in 1884.

 

A secret garden

Hidden away in the woods on a hillside overlooking Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes is a stunning collection of over 40,000 day lilies. Grace Rood planted her first lilies in 1957, and now her son oversees Grace’s Garden. We visited the garden in mid July, when the day lilies were at their peak.

In the language of flowers, lily (Lilium) stands for majesty.  A white lily stands for purity and sweetness. In Kate Greenaway’s dictionary, a day lily stands for coquetry.

A passionate bouquet could consist of bird of paradise for magnificence, bougainvillea for passion, and lily for majesty.

Doesn’t the secret language of flowers inspire you to make your own bouquet for someone you love?

 

Bright orange lilies

Some lily names: Serene Madonna; Miss Jessie; Golden Chimes; Angels Unawares; Little Dancing Dress; Little Fat Cat; Buttered Popcorn; Coyote Moon

A cottage window

Grace’s cottage

 

If you enjoy flowers, check out Rambling in the Garden, and join the “In a Vase on Monday” crowd.

 

Tablecloth with lilies

I found this lily-laden tablecloth in a Finger Lakes antique shop. Perfect for a summer picnic.

 

Standing in front of floral shop

Our flower shop opening day, July 24, 1956

More flowers to come in my next post.

 

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